Category Archives: Medieval Europe

Tales from a Crypt

Religious Propaganda

Deep in the North of England sits a town called Hexham. It is a nice town, with nice shops, nice people, and a pretty big abbey. You’d never think that, over a thousand years ago, this was the site of a bold, and ultimately victorious, propaganda effort. Late seventh century Britain was home to a conflict between two competing visions of Christianity, one which preferred the practices of the Irish, and one which demanded conformity with romanitas (I’ll not delve into the details here). In 674 Wilfrid, then bishop of York, began building a church at Hexham which would be a physical expression of the supremacy of romanitas and orthodoxy. A church built in the Roman style, with Roman stone taken from a Roman bridge, containing features Wilfrid had seen in Roman churches, and filled with relics collected while he was in Rome.

In an unusual departure, before the church itself was built, Wilfrid had a large pit dug, in which a crypt for the Roman relics was constructed. This may have been an effort to emulate Roman catacombs. The exposed crypt was then buried beneath the church itself, leaving three narrow points of access for pilgrims and clerics. The crypt, once full of relics, was designed to inspire awe in the pilgrim; the steps down are steep, and the passage follows a path which does not reveal the crypt itself until the last moment. The small room, dimly lit,  smoke- and incense-filled, the remains and articles of saints on display, granted an ethereal life by the flickering light, would have had a tremendous impact on the medieval mind…

Hidden Divide

Though now there is only one rather large church at Hexham, in Wilfrid’s day there were two, the remains of both hidden in the foundations of the present building. A short walk from the entrance to the crypt, hidden beneath a trapdoor, we find the Roman bones of the old church. Aptly sitting above is the cathedra, the bishop’s chair, which Wilfrid himself may have sat on, richly decorated, and surprisingly comfortable…

A statement in stone

Though Wilfrid had to depart the region not long after becoming bishop (let’s be nice and say that he wasn’t very good at making friends), he was soon back again, and then had to leave again, but returned for a successful third act, living out his days at Hexham. Wilfrid’s churches were highly embellished, designed to be opulent and impressive, illustrations of power and wealth. Made from Roman stone, with glass windows (a rarity in Britain at the time), sculptures created by Gaulish craftsmen, and lavish decorations, Wilfrid’s establishments were both a powerful statement in favour of romanitas, and an indication of his own skill and ingenuity in bringing such complex projects to a successful conclusion.


The Shadow Line. Part 1 – That Damn Graph.

Seek and Ye Shall Find…

The most popular search-term which appears to draw net-trawlers to this corner of the virtual ocean is ‘Saint Patrick’ (and variations thereof), closely followed by ‘Clovis’, and ‘God’. I think this is an interesting situation in itself, but understandable considering the nature of the Endeavour. Indeed most of the search-terms WordPress informs me of appear to be reasonable, before we inevitably reach the realms of utter nonsense, but one query does stick out: ‘dark ages graph’ (and variations thereof). I have discussed, and dismissed, this graph before, but only in brief. Clearly the People (and variations thereof) demand more, though to what end I do not know. I hope the case is that they have seen the graph somewhere, recognised it as nonsense, but yet wish to seek out further detail. I fear, however, that the searchers seek it out to confirm their heartfelt belief in the inadequacy of religion, accepting this graph as some kind of ‘proof’ that the Catholic Church stymied science, and by extension mankind, for the best part of a millennium. This is the scenario you will find in most skeptic/atheist boards and sites, this tedious graph rolled out as ‘evidence’. Hopefully I will be able to aid those of you who are suspicious of the graph, and illuminate those of you who accept it.

First, Some History.

'The Dark Ages'

Taken from the original article (link just over there, to the left).

After some research, I believe I have traced the origin of this pestilential image to an article entitled “The Myth of Christianity Founding Modern Science and Medicine (And the Hole Left by the Christian Dark Ages*)“, which was originally posted on the 22nd of May 2007, with some (unspecified) additions and corrections on the 20th of January 2010. Spreading to forums, by 2008 it was an anti-religious demotivational poster. The article itself is an interesting piece of work which hopes to rebut the claims of Christians who would suggest that Science owes its birth, in some fashion, to religion. In theory, I agree with the writer, though not with his evidence, conclusions, or the manner in which he arrives at them.

The Graph is the Thing…

Leaving aside the article itself for the moment (since the graph appears to have taken on a life of its own), my first question is from where did the writer get the data points from which to plot the graph? How does one judge scientific advancement, or indeed its decline? Did the writer simply take the cumulative amount of inventions created by each of the early empires he mentions? Did he apply some value system to the inventive process? Is it based on the material power of each empire? What is the basic criteria by which we judge ‘scientific advancement’? Scientific advancement appears to be, in this graph, a quantifiable property, a thing we can measure, which, in the modern world it may well be, since we have things like patent offices, but in ancient times, things get murky. Following from that, how does one deduce the reversal of such advancement? Nowadays it would be relatively easy; civilisation as we currently know it would collapse without oil, in fact I know a few people who consider their broadband speeds dipping below 3mbps as the beginning of a dark age. The strange thing is that for most people in the Middle Ages, nothing had changed from Roman times, or even Greek ones. The graph presumes a bizarre level of universality which is untenable, while also seemingly arguing that all history is necessarily progressive unless some outside force hinders it.

Empires and the Fall of Rome.

Contrary to popular belief, Rome did not fall because of Christianity. It fell because of the massive invasions of Germanic peoples, pagans mostly, who tramped around the Western Empire, generally making a mess of things. There were also issues of currency devaluation, the inherent difficulties in governing a massive empire with primitive communication networks, and the fact that the war with Persia was a massive drain on the economy (Americans, learn from history). The West was not where the clever people lived, it was not where the money was made; the East was where the Empire made its fortunes and where the great scholars lived. Gaul, Spain, Britain, these were rustic provinces which provided men and material, the most valuable provinces being Egypt, Greece, Africa, and Asia Minor, home to great urban centres, and lucrative trade. With the decline of the Empire in the West, the provinces of Rome were divided up amongst a variety of competing kingdoms, more keen on spending money on weapons than on books. The only folks who were still keen on the whole book-learning gig were the Church, specifically the great monasteries who carefully copied many works from Antiquity, works that would otherwise have been lost. And even then, while the city of Rome may have fallen to barbarians, the Roman Empire still hung around, except that we call it the Byzantine Empire (they considered themselves, and were considered by others, to be the Roman Empire), clinging on to the wealthier parts of the Mediterranean. In a modern sense we might call this Imperial down-sizing for the sake of efficiency, out-sourcing the governance of the less profitable western provinces to new entrepreneurial kingdoms.

It’s a Numbers Game.

For a moment, let’s wander back to the question of how we judge ‘scientific advancement’, placing it with a historical context. We might suggest that the number of inventions a society creates, or breakthroughs in medicine, or fun scientific discoveries would be a good indicator. The Romans had a very clever way of making concrete, the Greeks invented the natural sciences, etc., etc., with the presumption that the ‘Dark Ages’ offered little. Well, just because things were thought of, or invented doesn’t mean that they were used. A Greek also invented the steam-engine about 2,000 years ago, but nobody cared because slave-labour was cheap. Greek philosophers, while being very clever and all that, had no evidence of their theories (they would have to wait for 20th Century science to prove them right, but sadly they had died in the meantime), and so didn’t really offer a tangible and useful alternative to traditional thought. What I am trying to get at is that the importance of an invention or theory is dependent on its usefulness. Newton’s theory of gravity explained the world pretty well for a long time, so nobody bothered to change it, until scientists began to look at the very very big, and the very very small, and saw that it no longer held up. In walks Einstein and his clever theory about relatives, giving us the modern world. Julius Caesar could have thought up the notion of a guided missile to replace catapults and archers, and we would think him very clever, but that wouldn’t mean the Romans were more technologically advanced than the Gauls; all he would have had was the notion of a guided missile, not the micro-electronics needed to guide it. On a more realistic level, we might wonder why the Romans or the Greeks didn’t invent printing, but preferred to write on papyrus and such, even though they were astonishingly literate civilisations by the standards of the day. It was simply because there was no demand for mass-produced volumes, only a tiny minority of people could read and write, which was true up until surprising recently.

Hark, a Vagrant.

Map of the "barbarian" invasions of ...

Giant arrows are the real impediment to scientific advancement (Image via Wikipedia)

The greatest cause for the decline of Western Europe in the post-Roman world was the sudden appearance of a lot of Germans who wanted indoor plumbing. They didn’t want to destroy Rome, we must be at pains to remember, they wanted to be Rome. The problem was that there was too many of them. Where there had been one (half of an) empire there were now multiple competing kingdoms, all of which dreamed of being as powerful as Rome, and tried to imitate it as best they could. Unluckily for these new kings, most of the clever people had run away, though nobody’s really sure why, it’s not like a bunch of thugs showed up and began pillaging and burning and plundering and… oh, wait… In any case, the Church took over the apparatus of the Roman state in the West, opening schools and (admittedly primitive) hospitals, enforcing laws, and maintaining order, largely because no one else did. Of course there was a certain godly bias to the way they did things, but if the Church hadn’t stepped in and done its best to preserve Roman ways a true dark age would have fallen on the West. Renaissance scholars relied on manuscripts preserved and copied by monks, and indeed based the way that they wrote on Carolingian scripts (of course they thought the script was Roman, because nothing good happened in the Dark Ages).

Continental Divide.

If the Church was such a detrimental force, why was it that the Eastern Empire lasted admirably for quite a few more centuries? It didn’t become scientifically backwards, its construction programmes remained ambitious, and its wealth remained ridiculous, even with the rising power of Christianity. The great Islamic empires, which stretched across the Mediterranean world and into the Middle East, were not unduly impeded by faith, at first anyway. Graeco-Roman culture and learning survived in many respects thanks to early Islam. This mythical ‘Dark Age’ only happened in the remnants of the Western Empire, which reveals a certain bias. Since Britain, France, Spain, and Italy were all part of the glorious Roman Empire, and because they in many respects created and defined the modern world, it is assumed that they were equally as important in ancient times as they are (or were) in recent history. The reality is that most of the great cultural achievements of ancient world happened in the Near East, not Western Europe. Aside from the city of Rome itself, all the great libraries of the ancient world are found in the Near East. Rome was a cultural and scientific backwater when the Greeks found it, it just happened that the Romans were really really good at conquering people who were cleverer than them. The coastal regions of Spain and France were ‘civilised’ by the Romans, but the few cities found in the hinterlands of these regions didn’t even come close to the size and complexity of the cities found in Asia Minor, Greece, Egypt, or the Levant.  The ‘Dark Ages’, if such a thing existed, was a minor blip on the radar, the rest of the world got on just fine without Western Europe.

If we imagine, for a moment, the United States of America as Rome, the issue may become more clear. The great cultural centres of America are, not unlike Rome, its major cities, which are mostly found on the coasts. Much of the materials needed to sustain these cities come from the central states, which may also have large cities, but nothing which compares to the vast metropolises of the north-east or south-west. The central states may benefit from the advances and the wealth of the ocean-facing states, but they are not major economic powerhouses, or home to great academic institutions, or large-scale scientific endeavours (I admit that I am generalising, but you get my drift). If these central states suddenly became a variety of competing nations, or become occupied by migrant Canadians, they may lose the benefits of having belonged to one integrated state, but the coastal regions would still continue to do what they do, probably complaining that the price of corn has gone up.  Western Europe was a part of the great Graeco-Roman civilisation, but it was not really a contributor to it, so, in a sense, nothing really change ‘on the ground’ when the Barbarians took over. And it was the Church which preserved what little Romanitas remained, and which taught the new overlords the value of an education.

Part 2

Bad History.

I’m not sure what’s happening, but it’s very very wrong…

I was recently introduced to a woeful show, ‘Legend Quest’, which appears on a channel called ‘SyFy’, a series purporting to be based in such factual disciplines as history and archaeology. Let’s cut to the chase; it isn’t. This programme is little less than a shallow pool of supposition coupled with annoying camera-work; logic and reason take a back seat as history and archaeology are abused in some bizarre effort to capitalise on Dan Brown’s gimmick of dressing fact with fantasy. Part of the problem might be in that the channel is not what one would call a reputable source of documentary broadcasts, and aside from that, can’t spell ( the contraction derives from Science-Fiction, where have those ys come from? And since when do sci-fi and fantasy belong to the same genre? How can the incomparable Philip K. Dick be dragged on to the same spectrum as George R. R. Martin?). This programme, with its annoying premise blurring fact and fiction, wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t portrayed as a documentary, a factual presentation set in the real world, if we weren’t led to believe that it offers us history, the very meaning of which is not fiction, not fantasy, just facts interpreted logically and reasonably.

Bete Giyorgis, Lalibela, Ethiopia

Bete Giyorgis, Lalibela, Ethiopia (Image via Wikipedia)

Identity Theft.

Let’s take a look at some of the mysteries this series claims to have resolved. In the first episode we are treated to a new twist on the legend of the Ark of the Covenant, and a Scotsman doing his best impersonation of Indiana Jones. He heads off with his crew to Ethiopia, which is a good start because the Ethiopian Church claims that they actually have the Ark under guard in Axum. Is this where the show takes us? No. We are instead brought to Lalibela, the second-most holy site in Ethiopia. Here, because the churches are carved out of rock, a feat which the presenter decides the people of the region incapable of, in the shape of crosses, we are told that the structures were cut out by the Templars (did I mention the presenter is a member of the modern Knights Templar?). Wow. I mean, what arrogance to suggest that the Ethiopians could not carve these churches, that they must have had help from more skillful Europeans. And what a leap it is to ‘confirm’ this theory with the moronic deduction that since the churches are in the shape on an equal-armed cross, the symbol of the Templars, they must have been built by that Crusading Order. It must be pointed out that this symbol was the accepted cross of the Orthodox Church for centuries before the Templars appeared on the scene. So, at best, this programme might have suggested that the Ark was in Lalibela for a while before being brought to Axum, and that is all that they could reasonably say. But no, that’s not conspiratorial enough for our intrepid host; the Templars took it from Ethiopia first to Tuscany, and then to the Cathedral of Chartres, which lies near Paris. Because that makes perfect sense.

Chartres Cathedral

Chartres Cathedral (Image via Wikipedia)

The leap to Tuscany is drawn from an image of a double-headed eagle on the walls of the church in Lalibela; this is a common symbol in the Near East, used by, among others, the Byzantines, the Seljuk Turks, the Armenians, and the Hitties. I should make it clear that list covers several millennia of use before the Templars ever dreamed of heading off to foreign deserts to kill people for believing in a different interpretation of the same deity. But, what the hell, the presenter decides it must be a Templar symbol. He even meets a Grand Master of the Order who tells him clearly that one must distinguish between the myth and the history of the Templar. A delightfully veiled “cop the hell on”. And then the subject of the conversation leaps to Chartres Cathedral, which makes me want to see the uncut version as the interview we are shown is cut in a curious fashion. At Chartres the presenter finds a carving of the Ark which he takes to be evidence of the Ark’s presence. Yeah, because medieval Christian Churches don’t often have religious imagery from the Bible plastered all over their walls, columns, floors, windows, or every available surface. A scarred slab is ‘discovered’ in the middle of the cathedral, which the team decide must hide the Ark, not even for a moment pausing to ask anyone for the history of the site or architectural details. This slab may have been an entrance to a crypt, the site of an old altar, or any number of things other than a hole in which the Ark was hidden. The line of reasoning is as convincing as a wet sheet of paper is strong. Or, in other terms, slightly more convincing that homeopathy, but only slightly.

Iona Abbey, Iona, Scotland

Iona Abbey, Iona, Scotland (Image via Wikipedia)

A Sword and a Stone.

In another episode the presenter somehow conflates the legends of the Stone of Destiny with the Stone of Scone. Leaving aside whether or not (just so you know, not) these are the same object, the line of reasoning is again deeply flawed. First we are introduced to a real historian who has studied the Stone of Scone at Edinburgh Castle, and who essentially scoffs at the presenter’s crazy theory. Then we are treated to the crew’s obvious surprise at not being allowed to go in and film in the museum, with the not so subtle hint that the ‘establishment’ is trying to hide something. Really? What kind of professional TV crew, documentary or not, thinks that they can just walk on into a museum without asking for permission in advance? The whole scenario is clearly staged. Later, at Iona (I really do not know how they got to Iona, it makes no sense at all) they wander around the grounds, and move furniture and rugs without ever consulting anyone. There’s even a point where one of the crew asks if it is okay if they move things and the presenter replies, yeah if you do it with respect. What on earth does that mean? I have the sneaking suspicion they didn’t ask for permission this time, and just went ahead and filmed, which would explain why they are always running about breathlessly… They ‘discover’ a stone under the floor of a small room; for a hiding-place it’s not very clever if it can be found after two minutes of searching. And even then, all they find is a fairly plain stone slab which could be a headstone, since it has a cross inscribed on it; they have no, I repeat, no evidence to even suggest, let alone prove, that this is the true Stone of Scone or the Stone of Destiny, which apparently sits atop Tara in any case. Also, at one point the presenter states that Iona was founded by Scottish colonists, when it was in fact founded by Colum Cille of the Ui Neill of Ireland, and became a missionary base for Irish monks.

As for the episode concerning Excalibur, well, that’s easy. There was no King Arthur to have a sword, he’s just a myth, so there is no physical sword to be discovered; problem solved. Yet somehow we are given a twenty-minute romp through this man’s personal delusional version of history. I have no idea why the presenter thinks King Richard had Excalibur, that is a truly baffling leap, and how he came to the conclusion that Richard had to buy an army from Tancred in Sicily, when he in fact invaded it to secure the release of his sister from Tancred, has me stumped. And, predictably, the Templars are involved.

A web of lies.

Whoever wrote and researched this series would seem to have a similar obscene relationship with the truth as the Vatican, flirting with it, and touching it in a way that can only be described as uncomfortable. Leaps of ill-conceived logic are made frequently, religious art and icons are misinterpreted, and the process of historical and archaeological research, deduction, and reasoning are grossly misunderstood. I cannot believe that this claims to be reality, though it does belong on the SyFy channel, but only as a compliment to Warehouse 13, and with a clear indication that it is fictional.

This programme is painfully misleading, and its website is confusing. At the very beginning of the programme the presenter states:

“My name is Ashley Cowie. I’m an author and archaeologist explorer specializing in ancient symbols and mysterious legends. I’ve spent years studying some of the world’s most fascinating relics. Now I’m on the hunt to find where they are. Some would hope that these secrets remain hidden but I’ll leave no stone unturned to uncover the truth in my…”Legend Quest”.”

Firstly, what kind of archaeologist would put “author” first? Secondly, as a proclaimed archaeologist, it is suspicious that he has studied relics (a word I am reliably told a real archaeologist would never use) that he has never seen, or that nobody else has; that’s just not how archaeology works. Archaeologists go out and find things, and then study them, that’s the bloody point. Also, he never mentions what qualifies him as an archaeologist.

The associated website has some curious fictions of its own. We are informed that “In 2002, Ashley was elected into the “Society of Antiquaries of Scotland,” the oldest and most exclusive historical society in Europe.  Founded by Royal appointment in 1732, this society currently holds only 3000 fellows.” ( This is really weird, and I mean really. Firstly, why is “Society of Antiquaries of Scotland” surrounded by quotation marks? Is it not a reference to the real society, just one made up to make this guy look good? “Madness”, I hear you say, “You, dear author, have been infected by the conspiracy nonsense of this prattling man!” And you might be right, dear reader. But let me take you to secondly, which is that  “The Society of Antiquaries of Scotland was founded in 1780 by David Steuart Erskine, the 11th Earl of Buchan (1742-1829), and was incorporated by Royal Charter in 1783.” ( The date on the SyFy website contradicts what the Society’s own website says, and the SyFy site is completely wrong in stating that the presenter is a member if the oldest historical society in Europe, it’s not even the oldest in Britain. His books don’t appear in their list of publications, but they do have a book on the Stone of Scone which contradicts what he argues. Something is very very wrong. On top of this the website biography states that the presenter is a historian, not an archaeologist as he claims in his introduction on the show. Furthermore, no reference is made to where, or to what degree, he was educated in either field. Is anyone else thinking that the fiction isn’t just contained to the programme itself?

“There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth; not going all the way, and not starting.”

If it’s supposed to be fantasy fair enough, but “Legend Quest” should be clearly labelled as such; lies like these can be dangerous, I might smack someone if I heard them rattle this nonsense off to a group of friends at a party. But seriously, if people are led to believe that what this man is doing is real history and archaeology it devalues those fields and builds a deeply misleading image of them in the minds of the viewers. His crazy conspiracies are given an element of credence by the documentary style of the programme, which might lead people to believe that what he says is true, when it is categorically not. He’s not within an ass’s roar of the truth.

Blurring the lines between fact and fiction is what gives madmen power, it erodes the confidence people have in critical analysis and academic research, it allows the implausible to be dressed as the probable. A lie repeated confidently is believed true, and facts which offer truth are ignored. This is a seemingly more frequent occurrence in our TV shows, and the words of our elected officials; it’s all part of the same problem. Nobody takes the time to really think and reason things out, possibly because we are not taught this skill at school, but also due to the very fact that the people and programmes we have been inculcated to trust are using this trust against us to achieve their own ends.

Or maybe I’m just a cynic…

It seems I am not alone in doubt the legitimacy of this programme – .

Temporal Inconsistency.

Wailing and Gnashing of Teeth.

I loathe historical anachronism, I really do. My disdain for it rivals that of my hatred for the pseudo-Celtic intellectual defecations which litter the shelves of many a high-street bookshop. It drives me up the wall. My particular disgruntlement concerning anachronism is based around the imposition of values. Sure, I often use modern examples to explain past events, use modern phrases to elucidate ancient concepts, and current events as mirrors to the past, but in a tongue-in-cheek, sarcastic, if not cynical, fashion. This isn’t academic scholarship, and I would hope that those (very few) who read these little works appreciated the tone and aims of my efforts, but I do my best to refrain from outright anachronism. I do not impose my values on others (though I reserve the right to not approve their inane comments on my tiny corner of the Internet), and I endeavour to not impose my values on the past.

For Example.

I have often heard and seen people balk at the more bloody exploits of the Romans, TV documentaries refer to Imperial conquests as cruel and vicious, and read comparisons of modern American exploits in the Middle East to the grand designs of those pesky centurions from Latinum. Yes, by modern standards the Romans were savage in conquest, cruel in victory, and bloodthirsty in celebration, but, by their standards, that was an exemplary mode of living. A human life was, essentially, worth less; birth and death rates were very high, slavery was ubiquitous, execution was used as a form of military discipline, diseases could strike down the healthy just as easily as the weak, and any number of random events could end a person’s life prematurely, which itself was, more often than not, limited to forty or fifty years. Yes, by modern standards, what the Romans did to large swathes of Europe, North Africa, and the Near East was ethnic cleansing or genocide, but to them, it was business as usual. This may seem callous on my part, to readily dismiss the conquest, execution, and enslavement of tens of thousands, if not millions of people, but, while I do find it reprehensible on a moral level, we cannot judge the past by the standards of the present. That was the way the world worked in those days; the Persians, Egyptians, and any other empire you care to mention did the same whenever they conquered a new territory, and don’t think that this was just a pagan eccentricity; there are several lengthy passages in the Bible where the Israelites annihilate several other peoples during the various expansions of their kingdom (under Joshua, and several of his successor judges, an under the kings Saul and David), but that was okay because ‘god said so’. The belief in implausible fantasies has allowed the commission of many fetid acts and gruesome deeds, the results, and repercussions, of which litter history, and are still apparent in the world today.

A Carpenter’s Bias.

Sometimes when I raise this issue, I must suffer the bland retort that Christianity changed all this, what with its Bee Gee charismatics, and general hippy ethos of make love not war. Yes, the early Christians were more keen on spilling their own blood than that of others, but once they realised that Jesus was not coming back, along with the fact that the Romans got on-board with the whole ‘Son of God’ thing, and that there was money to be made, the tune promptly changed. Christ was introduced to many converts by the point of a sword, or, later, the barrel of a gun, and, more recently, and in arguably a more cruel fashion, as a condition of receiving aid and charity. Christians were, and continue to be, just as good at ethnic cleansing and genocide as the pagan Romans (and I think we all know that to be a horribly true fact), and the capturing, selling, and owning of slaves by good and loving Christians only ended relatively recently in the West (though one could easily construct an argument illustrating the West’s economic enslavement of the much of the rest of the world). Society seems to have rather quickly forgotten how near atrocity is to our peaceful lives, such that we can feel safe in passing moral judgment on the past.

All too Human.

Humanism, not Christianity, is what changed the moral standards of the West. The value of a human life was found to be in life, not in the illusory everlasting nonsense of an ‘afterlife’. The drive to end slavery came not from faith (though it did eventually jump on the bandwagon) but from reason, and the greatest atrocities of our times were committed by religious or cultish autocrats. Our moral standards are a recent convention, and as such we can judge the recent past by our standards; we can be baffled by the horrors that man inflicted upon man in any age, but we only have the right to judge those who have lived since the Enlightenment (to varying degrees). It is equivalent to calling Ancient Egyptians idiots for not comprehending atomic theory, or mocking the Aztecs for not inventing the transistor.  The Roman economy was based on conquest and slavery, and their entertainment would make Abu Ghraib seem positively pleasant. The Vikings’ idea of a good time was getting drunk, eating lots, and rape and pillage, and the same was true of many Medieval peoples. These were vile deeds, but they were also vile times; a judgment on the past, admittedly, but someone like you or I, or the vast majority of people, would number among the dead, enslaved, or raped in such a world. But yet we cannot, in academic honesty, judge people who lived before Rousseau, Kant, or Paine, before the rise of Reason, before Enlightenment. They lived in a time of abject faith and mundane cruelty; if anything, they should be pitied.

Leave the Celts Alone.

Fictional Characters.

After a brief search on Google, or even here on the gamut of blogs and articles provided by WordPress, of the words ‘Celt’ or ‘Celtic’, the casual internet patron might be left with thoughts of a deeply mystical people, ancient and arcane spirituality and wisdom, or of gruesome barbarian warriors shrouding their mind. They would also most likely come across links to Irish, neo-pagan, or alternative Christian sites promoting the peculiar enlightenment of the Celts. One may find Celtic litanies, Celtic incantations, pagan prayers to be uttered at Celtic festivals (particularly popular at Halloween), Celtic jewelery, books on Celtic spiritualism, wistful Irish music, or even, if you are lucky, a bizarre reconstruction of a fight between a Celt and a Persian Immortal to discover who is ‘deadliest’. I admit, the immediate hits on Google for ‘the Celts’ provides the user with a list of useful and reasonable sources, but the myth of the Celt persists.

Who were the Celts?

Therein lies the rub, the task. It’s rather hard to say exactly, but one thing that should be taken for granted, but isn’t, is that the Irish, the Welsh, and the Scots aren’t. Of the many populations which have inhabited Britain and Ireland in the last few millennia none of them were, to use a modern term, ethnic Celts. Consequently, anyone who tries to sell you anything with ‘Celtic’ and ‘Ireland’ in the title is inherently wrong, unless it’s an academic work, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

And that Moment is Now.

Bust of Julius Caesar from the British Museum

Image via Wikipedia

The confusion relating to the term ‘Celt’ is down to 17th/18th century linguists, helped by modern willful ignorance. There were a people whom the Greeks and Romans called the Celts inhabiting Spain, France, and Central Europe back in the days when Greek education was the envy of the world. Whether or not these people were Celts is even up for debate; it’s one thing when Herodotus in the 5th century BCE refers to Celts, it’s a whole other thing when Caesar talks about them four hundred and fifty odd years later. Of course Caesar tells us that the people he’s conquering for their own good call themselves Celts, but we really only have his word for that, and he had an agenda, but some of them at least were probably the same people Herodotus was also writing about. But did they call themselves Celts?

Hellene? It’s all Greek to me…

The Romans called the Greeks ‘Greek’, a mistake that we’ve inherited,  but that’s not what the Greeks called themselves; in their minds there were Hellenes. The first group of Hellenes the Romans met were a tribe called the Graecians, and so they baptised an entire people with the name of one small contingent. So the people who Herodotus and Caesar called ‘Celts’ may only have been a small tribe of people, they might not have thought of themselves as Celts, they may have had no ethnic unity or consciousness whatsoever, unlike the Greeks and the Romans, aside from knowing that they were not Greek or Roman. These ‘Celts’ did share a common culture and language group (the individual languages may not have been readily intelligible to one-another, just as a modern Irish speaker would not immediately grasp modern Welsh), but they were not a nation as we now understand the term. This culture and language was shared by the peoples in the archipelago just off the north coast of Gaul, but they were not Celts.

Confused yet?

From the Ireland to Germany, Spain to Turkey, lived a people who spoke languages with a common ancestor. When this common ancestor was proposed it made sense, to the 17th/18th century mind steeped in Classical learning, to call this ancient language ‘Celtic’. It was hardly the best term to choose, but we’re stuck with it. And that is how, very simply, the Irish, Welsh, and Scots became Celtic. It’s just a term, a very specific term in linguistics.  Latin and its descendants (French, Spanish, Romanian, etc.) are Italic languages, but that doesn’t mean that the people of Chile, Madagascar, Macau, or Vietnam are Italian. The term ‘Celtic’ is used in a very specific fashion in an academic context, there are books and articles on Celtic Theology, Celtic Sources, etc., on the bookshelves of many a university library, but in the shops on the high-street the term is almost ritually abused for the sake of money. You can buy Celtic Wisdom for £5, learn Celtic Secrets for less than a tenner, or get your own Celtic Spiritual Guide half price! There is nothing Celtic in these wastes of ink. Similarly there is very little about neo-paganism which is Celtic, mostly because the Celtic-speaking peoples of Europe didn’t write much down, so these neo-druids and wiccans are literally making stuff up, which is no different from any other religion in all fairness. And there never was a Celtic Christianity, and the Celts did not save Britain.

Celtic Fluff.

The term ‘Celt’ has become a fluffy word that spiritualists, and cunning marketing, frequently slap on a product to make it sell, from trinkets to soap. This seems to be a consequence of the increasing lack of faith in established religions, and the belief that the older, ‘more spiritual’ ideas were somehow better, in tune with nature, or some other vague allusion. The Gauls dug massive mines all over France in search of precious metals, which made them vastly wealthy, and ultimately financed Caesar’s coup. The peoples of Ireland and Britain traded with anyone and everyone they could, such that, for example,  rare lapis lazuli from Afghanistan found its way to Ireland where it was made into ink for the illustration of religious texts. These people were just like us, consumers, but without the benefit of an alternative paradigm to faith. And, if the ancient Irish are anything to judge by, they were deeply practical, legalistic, and wonderfully secular for their time. This is not the ‘Celt’ that is promoted nowadays; we are confronted with a delusion invented by the 18th century Romantic Movement, an ephemeral fantasy cobbled together by misguided nationalism and often beautiful, but not necessarily true, literature and poetry.

Be wary of Greeks bearing gifts, and be suspicious of anyone who uses the term ‘Celt’, unless they offer the immediate qualification of ‘linguistically speaking’. And stop calling the Irish, Welsh, and Scots ‘Celts’, or start calling the English and Americans ‘Germans’. Either way, leave the Celts alone.